I have to start by applauding the efforts of Legacy 1995. This non-profit group is the foremost historical and environmental group in Nigeria. They are passionate about the restoration and preservation of historical landmarks all around Nigeria and organize tours to these sites in an effort to drum up publicity for some of these landmarks that are very rapidly deteriorating without Government intervention. Without Legacy 1995, I do not think I would have the kind of access and historical background to a lot of the sites I visit.
You can learn more about (and hopefully support) Legacy1995 here.
Lagos Island – Brief history & my experience.
The island of Lagos – a sandbank in the middle of a lagoon stretching both east and west behind the roaring breakers of the Atlantic Ocean – was initially the inheritance of Aromire who took possession of the island sometime in the 17th century. Before Aromire took possession of the island, it was a haven for Portuguese seafarers and traders who needed to beach their ships for cleaning and repairs during the long journey between the Far East and Europe. The Portuguese were the first foreigners to barter their goods with the indigenes and they gave the island its name “Lagos” after the small port in southern Portugal where most of them were from.
But Lagos truly came into its own starting during the colonial era when it was the colonial capital of Nigeria and evolving to the cosmopolitan megacity that it is today. It was said that Lord Lugard (Governor General of Nigeria in 1914) actually did not like that the capital of Nigeria was essentially on a sandbank island and wanted to move the capital further inland, but never got enough support to do so.
Present day Lagosians (those who are from Lagos Island proper and popularly called “Ara Isale Eko” meaning people of downtown Lagos in Yoruba language) are simultaneously welcoming and menacing in my opinion. They are a very jovial people and they tend to speak in a guttural cadence that can be intimidating to those unfamiliar with them. But once they ascertain that you do not mean them harm or you have come to view some of the hidden treasures of the island, they tend to be friendly and accommodating. That said, if you are ever going to venture on a walking tour of Lagos Island, I would recommend strongly that:
- you go in a group;
- go very early on a Sunday morning when the streets are very quiet and you can linger and look at the interesting buildings and sites of the island;
- not take any pictures in the downturn (Tinubu Square area) as that area is overrun with the popular ‘Area Boys’, touts that will not hesitate to take your camera from you or even harm you.
Nevertheless, the back streets of Lagos contain a lot of secret and history and if you care enough, you can find the culture a city which never rests and a population with a ready smile!
Interesting tidbit: According to Sir Mobolaji Bank-Anthony, to be considered a Lagosian, one had to live in Lagos for 20 years (30 years if one wants to be considered from Isale Eko. No one can give confer the title on you and none can take it away was you have met the requirement!
Lagos Island Walkabout – Some highlights.
The tour began at the Freedom Park on Broad Street and continues from there in the order described below.
This park is such a hidden gem that I honestly think it deserves its own blog post which I shall complete in the next few weeks.
It occupies what was once the Broad Street Prison which was operational from 1887 until it was closed in the 1960s. Along with some petty criminals, some of the famous inmates held in the prison included some of the nation’s foremost activists and politicians like Herbert Macaulay, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Micheal Imoudu of the powerful railway union, Sir Adeyemo Alakija and many others who all served time due to the political activism. But arguably the most infamous inmate of the Broad Street Prison was 22 year old Esther Johnson (nee Ada Ocha Ntu) who was jailed for stabbing her British husband Mark Hall. It was a tragic crime of passion and the case became the ‘cause celebre’ of the 1950s. Not only had Esther discovered Hall with another woman in her house, but he had borrowed a large sum of money from her which he used to start another English wife in business in England. Esther was sentenced to death – the last woman to be so sentenced in Nigeria – but was later pardoned on a wave of public sympathy. She was ultimately released by Royal Prerogative on the recommendation of the then Governor General of Lagos Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe.
Interesting tidbit: There is a bar on the grounds of the Freedom Park called “Esther Revenge!”
The old Broad Street prison was at the time it was in use considered to be ‘the finest in West Africa and featured a hospital’. In fact homeless people routinely tried to get in among the work-release prisoners, just so they could get a decent meal and a place to lay their heads overnight! The site remained derelict from the time of its closure until very recently when Lagos State as part of its Central Business District renewal program to commemorate Nigeria’s 50th Independence, decided to restore some of the islands historical sites at the time of Independence.
Old Secretariat & Printing Press.
The Government Printing Press was built in 1894 and lies on the corner of Broad Street and Joseph Street (named after the first Baptist Minister, Joseph Harden (1855)).
The Old Secretariat was completed in 1895. It is by far the most imposing colonial building in Lagos, built with imported bricks each one of which was stamped with the armorial bearings (‘broad arrow’) of the Quartermaster General of Britain which appeared on all British government property.
Ministry of Health Building
Now the Centre for African Arts and Civilization built in 1925.
Close to it is the Lagos Medical Officer of Health’s office that was once occupied by the redoubtable Dr. Adeniyi-Jones who had to countersign the drawings of every building constructed in Lagos to ensure that buildings were designed to the by-laws and also to ensure that there was no repetition of the bubonic plague of the 1930s! (which apparently spread fast because of overcrowding in various buildings without proper ventilation).
Interesting tidbit: From this stretch of Broad Street, one can also see some of the steel work of the original power station built when Lagos was the second city in the world to be lighted by electricity in 1896 (Munich was first). Which is now ironic in light of the epileptic electricity supply we now have in Lagos.
St. George’s Hall
Built in 1907 and was opened by then Governor Sir Walter Edgerton. It now belongs to the Mason’s Lodge.
St. Peter’s Church & St. Peter’s Primary School.
Reminiscent of the architectural styles of the Saros -freed slaves from Sierra Leone that were often highly skilled and highly educated – they brought European architectural influence with them to building construction in Lagos.
St. Peter’s primary school is notable because it was constructed with the windows (which are still in place) to reduce heat load during the day time when children are at school. The school was designed by architects Goodwin and Hopwood. The new addition in the middle was added to the school without consideration of heat load or the like.
Interesting tidbit: Free primary education was declared in Lagos in 1960 and architects were paid one thousand pounds per class built.
Bookshop House & Herbert Macaulay Statute
Bookshop House was built in 1973 by G. Cappa and designed by architects Godwin and Hopwood with special sun-screening and windows to reduce the heat load on the air-conditioning. it is still one of the few buildings in Nigeria to have a facade correctly designed to exclude direct sunlight between 9am and 5pm with a consequent astonishing 75% saving in air-conditioning loading on the office floors.
Herbert Macaulay was a civil engineer and one of Nigeria’s pioneer Nationalists. He was the grandson of Bishop Samuel Ajayi-Crowther, who translated the Bible into the Yoruba language and is now buried at Christ Church Cathedral.
This is one of a few Brazilian style buildings that is still left standing (and in good shape) on Lagos Island.
The Brazilian style of architecture was introduced by returnee Afro-Brazilians who first settled in the Campos Square area in the 1830s and were skilled builders. The Brazilian Style is Mediterranean having originated in Portugal and brought to South America by the colonists. Architecture was not the only influence the Afro-Brazilians (known as Agudas; their quarters were known as Popo Aguda and the main arteries are Massey, Tokunbo and Igbosere Streets which were once lined with two storey and single storey residences and shops beautifully decorated and painted in the Brazillian style), brought to bear in Lagos as they also influenced fashion and cuisine.
Their women introduced the long flowing dresses fashionable in Europe at the time and introduced new foods (for example, Frejon which I love!) 🙂
Located on Kakawa Street, Water House was and is still owned by the Da Rocha family – Mr. Da Rocha was arguably the then richest man in Nigeria. In fact, I grew up to my mom asking me in response to my demands if I thought she was as rich as a Da Rocha! The site housed one of the two clean water wells on the island and the Da Rochas made even more money selling water to the inhabitants of the island.
The Brazillian influence is seen in the curved arches around the building.
Across the street from the Water House is the Vaughan house which has been preserved and maintained in the Brazilian style.
It is unclear to me what the provenance of the building is and if the Vaughan family still own the building.
One interesting bit of architecture is the entrance arch which was preserved. Apparently every Brazilian style house had one back in the day.
Still on Kakawa Street, was a sad looking gutted and dilapidated building that looked to have been built in the 1800s.
Shitta Bey Mosque
This mosque was very beautiful in its simplicity.
It was built in 1894 by Sierra Leonean-born Nigerian merchant and philantropist, Oloye Mohammed Shitta, who served as a ranking leader of the Muslim community in the kingdom of Lagos. He was awarded the title “Bey” by the Sultan of Turkey and subsequently he and his children became known in Nigeria by the compound name Shitta-Bey, a tradition that has survived to the present day through his lineal descendants.
Oloye Shitta-Bey also contributed significantly to the erection of the Central Mosque in Lagos in 1873 and he supported various Islamic causes including: the erection of mosques beyond Lagos specifically at Otta; the use of Sharia as a guiding law for Muslims; and the establishment of a Muslim school in Lagos.
Chief Daniel Conrad Taiwo (Taiwo Olowo) cenotaph
Hidden on Broad Street is the tomb of Chief Daniel Taiwo who arrived in Lagos in 1848 and rose from humble origins, as a basket maker’s apprentice, to become an eminent personality in the political circles of the city. He died in 1901 at age 120.
The copper bust on the monument was reportedly made from melted down pennies.
His family house is still located across the street from the monument and still belongs to his descendants. Iga Taiwo Olowo literally translates to ‘Palace of Taiwo the Rich Man’.
The best surprise and the most hidden gem of the tour was discovering Chief Sogunro’s monument.
The monument is literally hidden from view directly across the street from the Lagos Central Mosque. The entrance to the monument has been completely obstructed by the Balogun market clothes traders, and structures have been built around it.
But the beauty of the almost life size monument is that it is enclosed in an enclave that is lit from the top and it’s appearance is quite dramatic against the entrance that leads to it!
Not much is known about Chief Sogunro other than as is written on the monument. He was particularly notable as the politician that helped negotiate the cessation of Lagos to Queen Victoria.
There were many other monuments and sites visited but where I couldn’t take photographs for fear of angering the Area Boys who were loitering around. Sites like:
- the Ilojo Bar (in a terrible state built in the Brazilian Style in the 1870-1880s; a hopping bar for Lagos elite);
- Site of the colonial law court now Tinubu Square with Madam Tinubu’s statute. No one knows what Madam Tinubu looks like as there are no surviving pictures of her recorded anywhere. She was a very powerful trader who initially sold slaves and later salt and tobacco. She was such a fierce and feared woman and legend had it that she would drown her slaves in water in front of prospective buyers to show them she would rather drown them than accept an unacceptable price. She was also reputed to have had multiple husbands at least 2 of whom she sold off as slaves!;
- Central Bank building;
- St. Anna Court 2 where Sir Adeyemo Alakija was shot on the street after a court case ended.